Thomas Jefferson, Observations sur la Virginie (1786), first edition in original binding

Thomas Jefferson, Observations sur la Virginie (1786), first edition in original binding

Jefferson, Thomas. Observations sur la Virginie, par M. J***, Traduites de L'Anglois [by abbé André Morellet]. Paris: Chez Barrois l'ainé, Paris, 1786. [4],viii,290 [i.e. 390]pp. plus [4]pp. errata and folding letterpress table. Lacking the folding map and the half-title. In original calf, spine tooled in gilt with a decorative motif of an urn surrounded by daggers and the original owner's name, "Vallé[e]," stamped in the bottom panel. Gift inscription dated 1943 to front endpaper, else very good. Howes J-78.Clark I:262. Sabin 35895. Sowerby IV, pp.301-30.

The first published edition of Notes on the State of Virginia, in a handsome contemporary French binding.

The first and only book by Thomas Jefferson, one of the most consistently brilliant minds of the revolutionary era, Notes on the State of Virginia offers a powerful and influential analysis of the potential of the newly formed United States. Jefferson starts the volume with statistics to demonstrate the vitality of the new nation's fauna, the richness of its natural resources (which he would extend significantly in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase), and the strength of its economy. But it soon becomes apparent that in Jefferson's eyes these advantages pale in comparison with America's greatest asset: its people.  In this book, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence extols the virtues that mold the culture and character the United States: a constitutional government, a system of check and balances, the separation of church and state, and most fundamentally, the protection of individual liberty -- all of which would be cemented into the nation's foundation with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. Certainly Jefferson had his blind spots -- most notably in his denigration of people of African ancestry, and his support of a system of slavery that he recognized was immoral ("Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just"). But in his analysis of the character and prospects of the United States, Notes on the State of Virginia would not find its equal for fifty years.

      It is rather ironic, then, that Jefferson's book would not be publish in America until 1788, four years after Jefferson first printed the work. Jefferson began Notes on the State of Virginia in response to queries sent in 1780 by the secretary of the French legation to the United States. He completed it in 1784 while serving as Minister Plenipotentiary to France and commissioned a private printing of 200 copies. Jefferson complained that the 1784 private edition, published in French, was vermiculated with error that "inverted, abridged, mutilated, and often reversing the sense of the original." But recent scholarship suggests that Jefferson's rejection of the private edition was due less to errors of translation or typography than to his own evolving ideas. This 1786 Paris edition, the first to be regularly published, offers a new translation incorporating pages of emendations by the author. Notes would not be printed in English until the London edition of 1787; the first American edition dates from 1788.

     There are significant textual differences between the French edition of Jefferson's text and the later editions in English, and though the translator was disparaged by one generation of scholars, Dorothy Medlin has pointed to the esteem he enjoyed among the philosophes as a peer and collaborator of Turgot, Diderot, D'Alembert, and Voltaire. Medlin and Gordon Barker argue that the translation of Observations sur la Virginie represented a close collaboration. The book was well received by the French press, which hailed Jefferson as a member of the Republic of Letters: "ces hommes qui ont établi dans le nouveau monde l'empire de la raison & le bien inestimable de la liberté." ("These men have established an empire of reason and the inestimable benefit of liberty in the New World.")

     This handsome copy lacks the rare map but retains the folding table on three Indian nations, the Mannahoacs, the Monacans, and the Powhatans. Some copies have only one page of errata (which is all Sabin calls for); this has four. Copies in the original binding are seldom encountered -- the vast majority of extant copies are rebound. 

     The name of the previous owner in the lower panel of the spine is intriguing. "Vallé" is truncated from Vallée --  abbreviations are common in bindings of the period. There are several significant individuals who bear that name, the most intriguing of whom is Jean Baptiste Louis Benoit Chastel de la Vallée (1764—?). Born in Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune parish in Strasbourg, the son of dame Nicole de Houx de la Vallée and Charles de Chastel d'Autrecourt, he received his certificate of nobility in 1783, and a military commission in 1784.

     In May 1788, both the marquis de Lafayette and marquis de Bouillé sent letters from Paris to introduce the young man to George Washington, who invited him to visit Mount Vernon. When de la Vallée arrived in America, he carried a letter from Thomas Jefferson:

The bearer hereof, Monsieur de la Vallée is recommended to me as a gentleman or worth, wealth, and high connection. Meaning to visit our country I take the liberty of asking leave to introduce him to the notice and civilities of your Excellency....

There is insufficient information to say with any degree of certainty that the Vallée who owned this copy is the young officer who met Jefferson, Lafayette, and Washington, but the connections are suggestive.


  • Barker, Gordon S. “Unraveling the Strange History of Jefferson's ‘Observations Sur La Virginie.’” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 112 (2004) 134–177.
  • Boyd, Julian P., et al., eds. The papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton University Press, 1950-), 13:120.
  • Medlin, Dorothy. “Thomas Jefferson, André Morellet, and the French Version of Notes on the State of Virginia.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1, 1978, pp. 85–99
  • Ravalet, Richard. Dossiers individuels des sous-lieutenants recrutes dans l'infanterie et la cavalerie, 1781-1790 (Chateau de Vincennes, 2015), p. 156.
  • Twohig, Dorothy, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788 – 31 March 1789 (University Press of Virginia, 1987), pp. 25-26.

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